‘Indie classical,’ with a bad case of beautiful hair

William Brittelle. (Photo by lifeasart via flickr.)
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The composer and singer William Brittelle looks like a rock star—the love child, perhaps, of Pete Wentz and Robert Pattinson. There has never been more perfectly tousled hair than his. There have never been eyes more bedroom. There has never been a smile with such a blazing flash, never been such a smolder.

Brittelle's looks are not incidental, as his performance of songs from his new album, Television Landscape, last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge proved. Indeed, they form a significant part of his charisma. To the small, often unglamorous New York new music scene, he brings celebrity looks and a matching sound—epic and high-sheen.

It was as a rock star that Brittelle, 33, got his big break, as the frontman for the Blondes, an early-aughts New York post-punk band. They worked hard and got noticed, touring with bands like the Strokes and Television, whose guitarist produced their 2004 self-titled debut album. But during a concert at the Knitting Factory that year, Brittelle severely strained his vocal cords, leaving him unable to sing or speak. Soon after, the Blondes broke up amicably, and Brittelle turned more towards classical composition. In 2008, along with fellow composers Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snyder, he founded New Amsterdam Records, which has specialized in what has loosely been referred to as "indie classical" music.

A profile in The New York Times last weekend said that "a strict regimen of holistic treatment" has resulted in Brittelle's partial recovery. Last night's performance was the first time he performed without lip-synching in almost six years, and it would have been an extraordinary occasion for that fact alone.

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"I wish this was as simple as boy has voice, boy loses voice, boy gets voice back," Mr. Brittelle told the Times. "What it feels more like is being an athlete in your prime and tearing an A.C.L., coming back and resigning yourself to not being able to move as quick as you used to be or jump as high. But you learn how to use your teammates better, you learn what you can and can’t do, and you just have more perspective."

Television Landscape is on the pop side of the new music spectrum, but it moves, mostly, slowly. In its moody lushness, it recalls Elliott Smith run through distortion pedals—or Pink Floyd or Sigur Ros. As with the latter band, the lyrics are often less important than the simple sound of the human voice cutting through the dense instrumentation, which is likely an effect that the newly (if partially) recovered Brittelle wants to celebrate.

While still powerful, Brittelle's voice live is more percussive than melodic, and he has added another singer, Virginia Warnken, to fill in some of the higher passages. But adding a second vocalist (particularly one with less character than Brittelle himself) necessarily diffuses the effect of the starkly lonely lyrics: the album opens, "Every night I watch cartoons until 5 a.m. drinking orange juice on a brown couch smoking cigarettes, waiting for something to happen," and a line from "Halcyon Days"—"There is no end to the terror"—could stand as the record's epitaph.

The songs are at their best when they are most idiosyncratic, when the brass starts blaring and the music takes on the rollicking beat of a New Orleans big band, or when an unabashedly blazing guitar solo interrupts the well-crafted wall of sound. Much of the time, though (and particularly live), Brittelle and his players sound like an excellent jam band: Music to unconsciously, pleasantly sway to.

But it was apparently intense enough to do the one thing that good rock music should do: weed out the elderly. As the set progressed, a grey-haired couple left. Then another. And another!

To be compelled to leave a concert when hair that beautiful is performing, the music has to be rocking pretty hard indeed.